Capping Carbon: Shall we be Cautious or Badass?

Now that we are past the 410 ppm CO2 line annually, what will make us meet Climate Goals: Cutting emissions in half every 15 years? Or Negative Emissions? Can we use CDR for doubling carbon removal and hit 10 GtCO2/year by 2050? Possible? Plausible?

WHEN an overly-excited student tries to impress the Sensei by displaying his ferocious kicking abilities on a punching bag inside a make-shift gym he has cobbled together, the rest of the students let out some smirks. In Never Back Down 2, these trainees are in for a surprise though because this guy can actually kick hard. The bag slides away as he lands a ferocious blow.

But what comes next is much more piercing as a surprise. Case Walker, the wise and inveterate teacher, walks up to the bag and kicks too. This time the bag does not move but stands still, albeit with a visible slit at the precise spot after Walker has attacked.

“Now would you rather push your opponent, or finish your opponent?”

Walker’s words resonate when one talks to Noah too, and specially as one questions him on the odd design of an Ark that is supposed to save the world from being inundated in carbon. While pollution-control, carbon taxes, renewable energy, alternative fuels, Solar Radiation Management (SRM), afforestation etc. are great ways to drag the carbon away; Noah and his tribe firmly believes in ripping the bag with something much more aggressive: Removing carbon, and not just controlling it.

His argument is simple yet lethal. The rate of decarbonization that we are witnessing is not leaving us all much room to handle what’s about to come, despite the money and time we take in overhauling our habits, lifestyles, energy, transportation, building, and industrial infrastructure. Large-scale carbon removal by 2050 is a lofty goal and not so sturdy when placed adjacent to the alternative of having to decarbonize twice as fast – he slices a lot of research and contentions when he says that.

He has poignantly highlighted in his posts and talks that even cutting emissions in half every 15 years will be a challenge; and how much carbon removal would we need then to meet our Paris Agreement goals?

It’s time we chewed upon CDR or Carbon Dioxide Removal: yes, you heard it: Negative emissions! There’s no getting away from that cud as we witness Russ George’s ocean experiments, Bellona Norway Ocean project, Saskatchewan power grid trying to capture several tonnes of CO2 per year.

Can the Carbon Law be depended upon? Can we actually take excess carbon pollution from the atmosphere and send it across the U-turn to be tucked away into soil, in forests, underground, inside rocks and in long-lived materials?

Noah Deich and his crew are way past those questions and they are on a mission already to accelerate the development of scalable, sustainable, economically-viable carbon removal solutions. He is the Executive Director of the Center for Carbon Removal – a non-partisan, non-profit organization, working to clean up carbon pollution from the air – which he co-founded it in 2015 after a string of stints as a management consultant on clean energy and corporate sustainability projects for large companies across North America.

They are working to steer policy, research and action in the right way for carbon removal solutions, which they think need R&D, effective policies and regulations, apart from increased consumer and industry demand. They are all set to halt and – yes that’s the word that jumps out – to ‘reverse’ climate change by restoring atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to sustainable levels.

They want to make a dent in that bag that looks too heavy to even be nudged an inch right now.

Are they crazy? Aren’t most Walkers and Ark-makers are?

Let’s find out what powers their madness-on-a-mission, their unusual grit, those non-conformist muscles and that odd shin-blow? Will Noah tie those loose ends around Geo-engineering-borne fears and cynicism as well while he pins down doubts around SDR as substitute and carbon loss/gain what-ifs? Will he unscramble the fantasy that CDR promises on paper? Jump on.

Ok, what spurs you to turn the climate conversation upside down?

We all know we need to reduce carbon in our atmosphere, but so far, our efforts to fight climate change are fixed exclusively on one mitigation path- on shrinking future fossil fuel emissions. Is reducing CO2 emissions going to be enough?

What if we look at a technology or process that captures carbon and stores it permanently? We can explore many ways, like land use approaches that can harness the power of photosynthesis to capture carbon from the air, then store that carbon in plants and soils. Or we can try some industrial approach that can filter carbon directly from the air, store the captured molecules deep underground or in building materials.

But the point is that if we do none of that, it would be hard to achieve climate goals and existing technologies cannot generate negative emissions. We are on the path to iron out uncertainties surrounding carbon removal approaches. They have such great impact on our ability to prevent climate change. It’s time to clean up the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere.

How do you handle the first impressions and perceptions that people usually accord to CDR and Geo-engineering?

The big change in scientific community is that now they don’t think of CDR as geo-engineering but as mitigation. Leading CDR solutions are very similar to leading mitigation options. CDR is in stark contrast to Geo-engineering which is very experimental and with lots of downsides. You can’t really test too much. Geo-engineering implies a whole spectrum of governance challenges that are not as numerous in case of CDR. So CDR is not just a science experiment, more so, as many people now agree that carbon removal is important. I am quite excited to find people getting strongly interested in CDR these days.

What about Naysayers? Those who call such efforts delusional, hypothetical, insane or even desperate?

There are not many of them in policy circuits anymore. The Climate Maths is so clear that people see it as a necessary action point. The conversation is very different today than what it was five years back.

Existing technologies cannot generate negative emissions (Image courtesy freedigitalphotos)

What about the tussle between SRM (Solar Radiation Management) and CDR? On one hand, Grager Morgan from CMU urges the need for a great deal of caution. At the same time Russ George and his ocean experiments have suffered so much skepticism? Marine Clouds and Aerosol Injections i.e. reflecting heat vs. sucking away carbon: what’s faster, cheaper, better?

I don’t see the conflict anymore. SRM does not hold well much with the carbon balance problem or in restoring the balance back into the atmosphere. Once you have pulled out enough carbon, then things can become better. That’s the opportunity with CDR. You can avoid doing SRM, but the reverse is not possible.

Is CDR possible, cheap and easy? Or all of that?

Possible – yes. Easy – no. But the part that it is hard does not mean we should not do it. It needs a lot of investment, research and policy engagement. We need a broader dialogue and more community action here now. We need to have these conversations in an earnest way. It is an investment opportunity too. Imagine, we can save the planet and can still make money and future entrepreneurs. Also, there are umpteen non-climate environmental co-benefits with carbon removal solutions. Like: Carbon farming can improve soil resiliency to extreme weather, erosion, and flooding. Like: Forest management can arrest the number and severity of wildfires.

Let’s spend a moment on your sharp analysis 

emissions where you cited a paper from some European scientists and took a visceral view of the Carbon Law. So the law proposes that we will have to halve our CO2 emissions each decade starting 2020 and at the same time ramp up carbon removal rapidly starting in only a few decades time to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. How unwieldy and out-of-control is the ‘net’ here in ‘net emissions?

It would indeed be a good problem to discuss. But not very likely. When you look at the cost of renewable energy or forest conservation, you know that building machines is expensive. CDR can frame how expensive that can be unless we stop emitting carbon really fast and don’t trespass our thresholds. It’s akin to after-burners on a jet, not a brake.

Is there a CDR option that works better than others then? Bioenergy with Carbon Capture – BECCS or Soil Carbon Capture or Seaweed or Ocean Fertilization, Alkalinity enhancement or other Sequestration methods? Specially with different questions of scale, costs, food security models etc. that often intercept here?

It depends on what you call better. Some options present more bio-diversity, some are extremely weather-resilient but others are more reversible. Some are better with policy-monitoring time. It can work both ways. Options that are strong on industrial-technology can be expensive today but if CO2 can be put to economic use and make future building blocks for new economies, they would be good in the long run.

Tough bites need tough molars (Image courtesy freedigitalphotos)

We can also take into account profitable investments in carbon negative ‘pathway’ technologies. These are projects that are not carbon negative but can de-risk and amplify critical elements necessary for carbon removal solutions). Like: Fossil CCS / Bio-CCS for enhanced oil recovery or Low carbon cements/plastics or Fuel synthesis using direct air capture.

Some critics weigh in the problems of feed-back which presumably leads to more loss of carbon with these methods compared to human activities. What’s your take?

That’s certainly a risk. Some more science needs to be corralled around this. The more carbon we put back, the greater the buffer. Let’s think of the baseline. The whole natural system is going to be unprecedented and it will take diligent science to navigate this. But some tried-and-tested practices are still no-regret solutions that can be started.

Can corporates and CSR-side-push play any role here?

There’s a vacuum of sorts on the leading side. I am excited though how companies can be part of the chain in small and big ways. They can buy food, or materials or even chip in small incentives like the 2 per cent CSR mandate I hear about Indian sector. It’s important and helpful to be the first mover here.

Are corporate stakeholders interested?

Someone has to take a lead. Ex: A Carbon Valley like the Silicon Valley. Some initiatives by 3M, Patagonia are positive and corporates can recycle carbon in many ways. They can be at any point/s in the whole value chain. The pioneers are doing it, and not just in the US, but across the globe. Many energy and environmental technologies follow learning curves. This is the space where considerable investment in deploying technologies is called for before they can be produced at economically-viable cost. Let’s say we find that we need large scale negative emissions sooner than expected; then it will be paramount to develop viable, scalable carbon because more mature GHG abatement techniques won’t b able to help with negative emissions.

So is this a Science problem, Economics problem or Ethics problem? Or a trifecta or opportunity?

It’s all these dimensions. If you have strong markets and policy, you will figure out the technology and science too; and vice versa. You can fund with technology as a head-start and policy can follow there. It’s a bit of everything that way. We will have to pursue every angle and effort. We need more political and social will. It’s a lot of complexity that we are staring at.

You sound so excited and unflappable?

Of course! There are so many solutions and so much policy interest. We will figure the questions out. The whole portfolio is so promising and we just need to sort out how safe and smart all this is going to be.

Pratima H


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